Diet to a long life
July 29, 2013 3:34 AM   Subscribe

Are there many examples of people on the Western Diet and living long and healthy?

I'm being very broad with my statements for the sake of convenience.

There seems to be a general consensus from the media that Western Diets tend to be less healthy than ethnic diets, and ethnic people were relatively disease free. Examples: Aboriginal Australians taking on Western foods introduced by settlers and getting health problems, and Asian migrants giving up their rice and veges for meat and wheat.

There's plenty of web pages on this subject matter, in varying forms such as gluten free diets. Here is one example on this matter:

I'm wondering if it's simply a matter of moderation?

Are there people who actually followed the established food pyramid (where carbs intake should be highest) and lived a long life with little health problems?

Conversely are there stories of people who say something like, "i have a Big Mac meal once a week, drink beer twice a week, and still fighting fit at the age of 95"?

Is there generally one type of diet that enable people to live over 90 or 100 years old?
Or, is it actually just a Mix Bag? (i.e. Random)
posted by gttommy to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Being general (as you are) your example of Aboriginal people in Australia on first contact misses disease, tobacco, alcohol and violence, in reverse order of importance, to explain mortality rate changes. Diet's often a pretty minor historical causative factor.

Remember that diet numbers like this are aggregates and work across populations, so that any individual living in a population eating healthily or unhealthily---whatever they happen to be---still has chance acting on them in both directions. You could be like my grandmother who lived through the Depression, ate dripping, white bread, fatty bacon and grilled meat as often as she could, and lived to her late 80s. Or you could be healthy as an athlete and die of any number of other causes.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:49 AM on July 29, 2013

Conversely are there stories of people who say something like, "i have a Big Mac meal once a week, drink beer twice a week, and still fighting fit at the age of 95"?

My grandfather-in-law died recently at the age of 101. He'd been smoking since he was ten, had a fried breakfast and a glass of brandy every day, lived at home independently until his death, and visited hospital four times in his entire life. He had the first dance at my wedding, after his 101st birthday. My great-grandmother was pretty similar - drank, smoked, wasn't interested in 'fancy food' (anything introduced to England since the 1940s), lived healthily and independently and was redecorating her kitchen at the age of 97. ("But Nana, how did you reach the ceiling?" "On a stepladder, of course.")

So, yeah, there'll always be somebody who lives to 90 or 100 on any standard human diet. But that doesn't really tell you much about how healthy it is, overall. For that, you need to look at wider population statistics - rates of heart disease, other illnesses, average lifespan across population, etc etc. The outliers can't tell you much about the overall population.
posted by Catseye at 3:57 AM on July 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

[Jeanne] Calment's remarkable health presaged her later record. At age 85 (1960), she took up fencing, and continued to ride her bicycle up until her 100th birthday. She was reportedly neither athletic nor fanatical about her health [...] Calment smoked from the age of 21 (1896) to 117 (1992), though according to an unspecified source, she smoked no more than two cigarettes per day. After her operation, Calment needed to use a wheelchair. She weighed 45 kilograms (99 lb) in 1994. Calment ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance for her age to olive oil, which she said she poured on all her food and rubbed onto her skin, as well as a diet of port wine, and ate nearly one kilogram (2.2 lb) of chocolate every week. On 4 August 1997, at 22:45 Central European Time, Calment died, aged 122.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:01 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's the "French Paradox" -- that surmises that despite eating 'indulgent' foods, the French live a pretty long, fit life. There has been a bunch of diet books with that as a basic premise too.

Also, the Mediterranean diet is very refined carb-based compared to Eastern diets, but similar thing. Also, Inuits apparently eat/ate an extremely high-fat high-protein diet, and they're (objectively) healthy.

IANAD or Nutritionist or anthropologist or anything, but my feeling on it is that people tend to evolve to use whatever was available to eat, and the more they were exposed, they more they evolved to use it in a more efficient manner. Lactose intolerance is a great example of this. Cultures who produce lactase are ones who have been exposed to it for a long period of time.

The general feeling is that introducing massive changes in a diet -- for any culture -- results in issues in general. Especially short-term. I remember reading that immigrants in general live shorter lives, and that it may be diet based. Not sure if it's valid for say, a westerner moving to an eastern country though.

My personal thoughts are that I think our issue with 'modern' foods is a similar issue to the lactase thing. It's not been in our diet long enough. If we eat enough big macs, we should process them more efficiently and eventually it won't cause as many health issues, probably.
posted by Dimes at 4:02 AM on July 29, 2013

As FdG pointed out above, diet is only part of it. But so far as diet is concerned it is IMHO less to do with Western diets, than with industrialised food. People on healthy diets tend to consume more natural produce which has not been supplemented with chemicals or been near a factory. It is a simplistic truism that if your great-great-grandparents would not have recognised an ingredient then you should probably not be eating it as it likely exists more to make accountants happy than to nourish. Of course many of us live in large cities far away from where food is grown so we have no option other than to buy produce which has at least been stabliised for storage and transport.

I am somewhat amused by your example of a Big Mac once a week and beer twice a week as an example of unhealthiness, I would call it harmless moderation. People on unhealthy diets tend to eat crap to excess on a regular basis.
posted by epo at 4:02 AM on July 29, 2013

The problem with most diet studies like why Okinawans live longer or some Sicilians is that genetics is such an enormous factor that it is difficult to weed it out, especially in population studies.

Is there generally one type of diet that enable people to live over 90 or 100 years old?

One study would answer that with: no. That diet may get you to 70 or 80 but won't get you to 100 unless you had good genes already. The secret to real longevity seems to be your genes.
posted by vacapinta at 4:19 AM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Go to any nursing home in the country, and you'll see more examples than you can count of people who have lived long, healthy lives on the so-called "Western Diet".

There is pretty much exactly one change that you can make to your diet that has a dramatic, observable, repeatable effect on overall health: getting enough to eat. Malnutrition is a real problem. But fix that, and everything else may as well be a rounding error for all the difference it makes.
posted by valkyryn at 4:45 AM on July 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

The other change is not eating too much. You don't see many overweight old people.
posted by gjc at 4:56 AM on July 29, 2013

The NYT recently ran a story about Susannah Mushatt Jones, New York's oldest woman, celebrating her 114th birthday and apparently going strong.
Towards the end of the story:
Ms. Jones liked to cook when she was younger and still likes a hearty meal. On Friday morning, she ate her usual breakfast: a plate heaped with eggs, grits and bacon.
posted by third rail at 5:28 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

My grandmother lived to be 107 and all her children (besides my dad who died of hepC) are well into their 80s and extremely healthy. We're Italian. My aunts on my mom's side of the family are also healthy and in their eighties, anyone in town dying sooner than 85 is seen as dying "young".

I now live in the US and I am appalled at what is considered "old," though honestly people in general seem to become unhealthier younger here. The biggest lack in diet I can see is freshness. Food is not as fresh in the US, be it vegetables or fruit or meat.

Which is to say, of course there are healthy western diets (and the typical diet in my town is not a Mediterranean/Sicilian diet, it's a lot heartier and with no salt-water fish, lots of meat, lots of vegetables, plenty of alcohol and coffee) but your biggest indicator of longevity is also going to be affected by your genetics.
posted by lydhre at 5:32 AM on July 29, 2013

Sure, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries have some of the world's longest lifespans, and their diet is mostly meat and potatoes with very little green vegetables. I chalk it up to their socialized medicine system.
posted by pravit at 5:47 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

There seems to be a general consensus from the media that Western Diets tend to be less healthy than ethnic diets, and ethnic people were relatively disease free. Examples: Aboriginal Australians taking on Western foods introduced by settlers and getting health problems, and Asian migrants giving up their rice and veges for meat and wheat.

The media sucks at science reporting. Anything they report as a "consensus" is usually reporters recycling/paraphrasing earlier stories, losing precision as they churn the same tired content over and over.

Is there generally one type of diet that enable people to live over 90 or 100 years old?
Or, is it actually just a Mix Bag? (i.e. Random)

Too many variables in this equation. Suffice it to say that research has established that it best to avoid certain dietary practices but has not identified the One True Diet. Future research is unlikely to identify it either because of genetic variability between individuals and between populations.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:00 AM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

In my fat family we have the genes to live long lives, if the cancer doesn't get us. My great-grandfather died at 101. My grandmothers died early, one from Ovarian Cancer the other from Breast Cancer. Thankfully, science and surgery are helping me avoid those fates.

My parents, God Bless Them are still going strong in their seventies. My two uncles died pretty young though. One uncle died of Shingles in the VA hospital about 10 years ago. He smoked a lot of pot, but otherwise preached a healthy, whole grain and veggie lifestyle. My other uncle, smoked, ate all kinds of crap and didn't manage his diabetes very well.

So I think it's a bit from column A and some from column B. My diet isn't stellar, but I do what I can. Grassfed, organic meat about 75% of the time (I have no control over what's served in the restaurants we eat in.) A balanced diet punctuated with occasional garbage.

I do some exercise, I don't smoke, I don't drink except for occasionally, and I try to reduce stress.

I personally think that there's too much emphasis on food in general in our society. It's just nourishment. It can taste good, and we shouldn't over-eat, but after that, I honestly don't tink that diet is hugely important.

My sister only eats cooked vegetables, no dairy, no fruit. She buys regular groceries at the supermarket, and has a pretty terrible sweet tooth. She's never been overweight and she's a giant muscle, due to her choice of activities, including a 2nd degree black belt in Tai Kwon Do. It's genetics. She didn't get the fat gene, I did. She marvels at how much better than her that I eat and is convinced that there's an undetected metabolism issue because she knows that I don't overeat and yet I'm fat. Actually though, thems the breaks.

So it's genetics, enviornment and access to health care. Diet is probably not as important as the press and magazines would have you believe.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:20 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my experience with my own family activity has a lot more to do with it than diet does. My mother's mother is from Iowa and doesn't cook a meal without using at least a whole stick of butter. She also goes to tap dance 3 times per week and walks the dog twice a day and is otherwise pretty much always on the go. She shows no signs of slowing and she is 88.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:30 AM on July 29, 2013

From memory, Finland has some of the best long term studies on the relationship between diet and mortality.

For example:

- Studying dietary patterns instead of single nutrients in relation to mortality takes into account the intercorrelation of nutrients in the diet
- A healthy diet, as measured by an indicator based on WHO recommendations, is associated with a reduction of 13% after 20 years in all cause mortality for men aged 50-70
- The dietary pattern as a whole is more important than specific dietary components with respect to survival among older people
- The WHO dietary recommendations for the prevention of chronic diseases seem to be effective
- The healthy diet indicator is useful for evaluating the relation of dietary patterns and mortality in a cross cultural setting
posted by MuffinMan at 6:47 AM on July 29, 2013

The other change is not eating too much. You don't see many overweight old people.

I spend much of my time in places with a large number of seniors (retirement communities, nursing homes, hospitals) and I see plenty of overweight old folks.
posted by crankylex at 6:56 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

> Conversely are there stories of people who say something like, "i have a Big Mac meal once a week, drink beer twice a week, and still fighting fit at the age of 95"?

Anecdotally, there's often a lot of context missing. Similar to Catseye, my great-grandparents lived to their late-90s eating simple, heavy food, often fried, and drank and smoked habitually. But they worked factory jobs, doing real physical labor every day. And it's not just that the exercise burned off the calories and kept them strong. It did, and certainly in family lore it turned into them being too stubborn and strong to have to listen to any lectures...but they also lucked out in not having any congenital heart issues, etc. They knew plenty of people who lived the same as them, but had a heart attack at 60.

It's hard to judge the "western diet" over the last 70 or so years and talk about something consistent, though. While pre-packaged processed foods with lots of additives have certainly been popular for several generations, the overwhelming reliance on them by restaurants, institutional settings, AND home is a relatively recent phenomenon.
posted by desuetude at 7:24 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Are there many examples of people on the Western Diet and living long and healthy?
Yes, like many of the other posters, I have anecdata: one of my grandfathers ate a pretty standard American diet and lived to be 98. He was in excellent health until he died suddenly of a stroke after a lovely 2-mile walk and luncheon with friends. Never hospitalized, never suffered, never even woke up after the stroke. On the other side of things, his wife died at 79 of emphysema and diverticulosis, which were direct results of her smoking and poor quality American low-fiber diet, respectively. It was a long and difficult death. There are examples for every possible situation.

I'm wondering if it's simply a matter of moderation?
The question of how to live long cannot possibly be boiled down to "simply a matter of X" no matter what X is.

Is there generally one type of diet that enable people to live over 90 or 100 years old?
There are multiple traditional societies where longevity is higher than it is in America (certain peoples of Japan, Russia and Ecuador for example), and they do not share the same diet (although the diets share characteristics), so no, there is not one diet. Whether there is "one type" of diet is harder to answer, since it's unclear whether the similar characteristics of those diets (plant-based, etc.) are the reasons for their success, or if the success is due to some other factor.

Or, is it actually just a Mix Bag? (i.e. Random)
Even in systems strongly determined by certain known factors, there is always randomness, or at least what appears to be randomness when we are unable to determine the sources of variation.
posted by Cygnet at 8:24 AM on July 29, 2013

You may be interested in reading about the so-called "Blue Zones":
Blue Zone is a concept used to identify a demographic and/or geographic area of the world where people live measurably longer lives, as described in Dan Buettner's book, "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from people who lived the longest." The concept grew out of demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain,[1] who identified Sardinia's Nuoro province as the region with the highest concentration of male centenarians. As the two men zeroed in on the cluster of villages with the highest longevity, they drew concentric blue circles on the map and began referring to the area inside the circle as the Blue Zone. Buettner identifies longevity hotspots in Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and among the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, and offers an explanation, based on empirical data and first hand observations, as to why these populations live healthier and longer lives.
Dietary commonalities among the Blue Zones, from Alan Aragon's "The Paleo Diet -- Claims vs. Evidence" (PDF)
• Largely plant‐based.
• No over‐eating.
• Foods are locally or home‐grown & home‐prepared.
• Carbohydrate (largely from starch) is the predominant macronutrient.
• Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets.
• 3 of the 5 zones are regular coffee consumers.
• 4 of the 5 zones are regular alcohol consumers.
• All 5 zones are regular consumers of grains & legumes.
• None of the zones follow a Paleo‐type diet.
However, as pointed out above, you can't necessarily attribute the longevity of these populations solely to their diets.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:31 AM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might be interested to read some research on therapeutic fasting and caloric restriction (CR). Calorie restriction has been shown to slow down aging in mammals as early as in the 1930s.
Studies have indicated how CR influences genes, particularly SIRT1, to stimulate metabolic activity. Here is a good intro, by Prof. Leonard Guarente from the MIT who has been doing research on this for over a decade. If you want to dive deeper, here is a collection on published papers on aging.
If this is too science-y, you can check out bigthink for a short 6min video with Prof. Guarente from 2009 where he answers your question.

There is an interesting documentary on the subject of therapeutic fasting, produced in 2011 by Sylvie Gilman and Thierry De Lestrade in France for ARTE. If you speak French, have a look at the full doc on youtube. The English title is "Science of fasting", you can see a snippet here.

What you refer to are lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart diseases, common in Western societies.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:31 AM on July 29, 2013

Well, this thread is all over the place due to the vagueness of the criteria, but, adding to the anecdata, both of my Italian grandparents lived to be 99 in really quite reasonable health. They ate a typical Southern Italian diet all their lives, which was "Western" but not "crap Western." Lots of fresh vegetables, pasta, bread, moderate amounts of meat, wine, and dairy. They rarely ate in restaurants, mostly my grandmother cooked at home, with vegetables my grandfather grew. Very, very few convenience products. Dessert was a bowl of fruit passed around the table. Grandma got a bit thick with age but neither was ever really overweight. They also seemed to be pretty strict about only eating at mealtimes. I never saw either one snacking, ever.

On the other side of the family it was the "crap Western" diet: lots of Jello salad, donuts, deli meat, Russell Stover candies, etc. My grandmother had a longtime weight problem. Both died of cancer, my grandfather in his 50s and my grandmother in her early 70s.
posted by HotToddy at 10:27 AM on July 29, 2013

One thing that is easy to overlook is how sedentary people tend to be now, versus what people where eighty years ago. My grandmothers made it to 96 and 100, respectively. They grew up and lived on working farms until their sixties, and had, therefore, six decades of pretty vigorous daily activity. They weren't going to the gym or running marathons, but they weren't sitting on the couch eating bonbons, either. Diet is not the sole factor in longevity.
posted by ambrosia at 11:46 AM on July 29, 2013

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